The first time I touched a digital console was in 1988…twenty seven years ago. It was Yamaha’s first, and it was conceptually a great idea, but did not sound very good and flopped. The following two decades did not sound so good in the digital mixing world either. Live sound, has been the last bastion in professional digital audio for a few good reasons about to be explained.
Suffice to say that digital mixers have enormous flexibility, mobile control-ability, damn good sound quality, and a reasonable price point. This is increasing the digital minority of live sound engineers into what will soon become the vast majority of soundguys in venues and sound companies. Despite some sonic and financial merit to holding onto the analog method of mixing events, a tipping point has been crossed. The benefits of analog do not out weigh (figuratively) the disadvantages.
What happened to instigate the change?
Quite a few things happened to push into the realm of small guy digital mixing at events. Let’s back track to the early nineties. The first mixer was not useable by professional standards—the sound quality was terrible. Digital audio was still new, and the analog to digital converters of a decent quality were very expensive. A digital console needs one analog to digital converter (ADC) for every channel input and one digital to analog converter (DAC) for every output. That’s two to five dozen converters. Professional audio engineers and manufacturers didn’t collectively acknowledge high quality converters made a difference in audio until the mid-nineties. (We were too busy complainig about the crappy sound of digital. As soon as I heard the difference, I purchased and paid more for my first pair of Apogee ADCs in 1997 than I spent on my first digital mixer in 2014. The slow boat to decent sounding professional converters at a reasonable cost arrived in the past few years. Professional digital mixers also allow incorporation of high quality external ADCs and word clocks which improve digital stability and sonic clarity. Special interfaces may need to be purchased.
The microphone preamplifiers, which are the analog front end before the ADCs, have also been just acceptable on most digital consoles including those priced well into the tens of thousands of dollars. The stock mic pres have been improved by most manufacturers and are now quite useable—though sometimes I bring some external recording studio quality preamps for the vocal and bass.
The display and work-flow of the digital mixer interfaces was limited well into the 2000’s, comparable to a lot of keyboards from that era. Digital keyboards built today have quite a few knobs to control functions. It is the same with digital mixers. More knobs and the bigger the display, the better for getting around on the fly.
Yamaha figured out touch tablets could remotely control functions in their mixers about twelve years ago. It was awesome, but very expensive—like get a second mortgage on the house expensive. As a small sound company owner, that was not the time to invest. So glad I waited.
Apple introduced the Ipad a few years back, and at the time I couldn’t imagine what it would be used for aside from sitting on the coffee table to surf the net. The explosive rise in popularity of the Ipad had manufacturers writing software to control their mixers. Almost all digital mixers can be operated off a laptop computer too. This is done via an Ethernet hookup to a wireless network router, The iPad logs into the network and BAM, talks to the computer.
The newest digital boards, not the most expensive, have excellent tablet implementation that has caused me to ditch my audio mixer position at the center rear of the venue at most events. The mixer is set up at the side of the stage and tablets or laptops are used in the house to mix the event. Promoters love this because it adds seats to the venue and improves audience sight lines to the stage. I like it, because I can listen and adjust the sound ANYWHERE in the venue: In the house, on the stage (while talking to the musicians), in the hallway, on the patio. It even works in the bathroom. This is such a game changer for the average soundguy who brings the sound equipment to the event. No more big snake, hundreds of less connections, that fail from time to time, and no more effects rack. I save about 500 pounds of gear toting at the average show.
I like to walk the house listening to the sounds, and making adjustments everywhere in the room. If I make it sound great at the mixing position, no other listener will listen from that exact position. I ca stand in the back, right in front of the speakers, in the mezzanine, all o which will sound different and make the best average, before a listener comments about weird sound from their seats. I can also sit next to friends, or V.I.P.s for a minute, or stand next to the promoter assuring they like what they are hearing. Best of all, I can sound check the artists while standing on stage and holding a pleasant conversation rather than yelling or using a talkback mic from across the venue. Soundguys, it’s time to come down from your font-of-house mountain. Multiple computers and tablets can access the same mixer simultaneously. I often have my assistants mixing certain tasks, like turning up soloists, while I am concentration n the vocal blends or whatever.
An analog effects rack carries all the outboard processors that are needed to make an analog setup sound proper. These include, effects processors for reverbs, delays, choruses etc, dynamic processing, compressors, limiters gates and expanders, and frequency filtering, or equalizing processors. For a typical analog setup, I carry eight eqs, eight compressor/limiters, four gates and the analog mixing board’s external power supply in one rack. It was heavy and had two dozen connections, that had to be hooked up every event, and occasionally broke and required servicing.
In the digital mixer, there is an EQ, a gate, a compressor/limiter for every single channel. Just turn it on, no patching required. There are also eight effects processors for reverb, delay and modulation and a whole lot more. Digital effects quality has also been on the slow boat, but has improved immensely in the recent history. The effects are close enough to the quality of the standalone analog processors in the rack (many of which are actually digital), I don’t miss the old ones or the necessary patching. The new sonic clarity with less system patch points is noticeable to the discerning listener. When the audio is sounding good, it should not call attention to itself anyway—just make mixing more enjoyable.
Digital mixers offer recording capability built in or as an option. Best of all, settings can be stored and recalled for events, bands, services and stored on USB devices. This saves a lot of time from setting up an analog setup one knob at a time. I used to carry a 40-channel mixer so I could pre-sound check a headliner act, then mix the second band on the remaining channels. On a digital board, the headliner soundcheck can be stored as a scene, then recalled exactly down to the last knob just before they perform. This is huge and safer than the old technique of a lot of Sharpee and masking tape to mark settings ‘manually’.
It is a seldom realized fact of analog mixers that bass, or any low frequency, surges through the mixer cause the output to sag a bit. This is very slight, however discernible. Bass reproduced in the analog mixer uses more power, but at the same time the bass is outputting to the speakers, which push the bass out as soundwaves which uses a lot of AC power from the venue. The analog mixer would like more power from the wall but is actually getting less at these critical moments which occur hundreds of times a minute. This is the primary reason digital mixers are considered to have tighter bass sound. Analog mixers of a high build quality, may have better high end or midrange, But hey, I can work around that anomaly.
When it comes to outputs and patching flexibility, the digitals have the analogs beat. My 24-channel analog console has 6 auxiliary sends. So I could use four for monitor mixes, and two for effects units. I like to use three effects units, and I like to use five or six monitor mixes. Well, I can make it work by doing some fancy workaround compromises. Or I could bring the 40 channel (175lb mixer in hard-shell flight case) that has 12 auxiliary sends. Or I could bring my cheapest digital mixer which can still accommodate 8 effects and 12 monitor mixes simultaneously. That’s 20 auxes. For me, the choice is obvious. At my recording studio, Electric Canyon, there is a beautiful 80’s analog console. It sounds fantastic, but only can provide three separate headphone mixes for the recording studio. The studio uses enough external class A mic preamplifiers and ADCs, that the analog mixer now makes little sense, but sure looks cool. Now I have up to eight super clean sounding headphone mixes. The analog mixer is for sale.
These factors combined with manufacturing competition for market share and sheer economics of scale have brought the digital mixer to where we are now. If anyone needs a mixer now, digital is likely the way to go. Though there will always be reasons to stay analog, it is sure nice to have no scratchy faders or knobs, hundreds or less connections and fail-points, and hundreds of less pounds to tote around. I think I will do this weekends job without an assistant since I lift less and don’t walk back and forth where the analog mixer used to live.